Sunday, September 4, 2016

[FCS] "Letting Go of the Shore"

Letting Go of the Shore

Our Scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel according to Luke.

Luke’s is one of 4 different reports of the life and ministry of Jesus, and is often referred to as the one most favorable toward those on the margins -- women and the poor.

In Luke’s gospel, the birth of Jesus is announced first to poor shepherds working the night shift out in the dirty fields with smelly sheep. Some of the parables unique to Luke’s Gospel are the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal.

Our reading today comes about 2/3 of the way through the book -- Jesus has already begun turning toward Jerusalem, warning the disciples that the Child of Humanity will suffer, be killed, and rise again.

Listen now for what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

25Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and Jesus turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate parent, spouse, children, siblings, yes, and even life itself, is not able to be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me is not able to be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether you have enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when you have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule you, 30saying, ‘This person began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what ruler, going out to wage war against another ruler, will not sit down first and consider whether they are able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against them with twenty thousand? 32If they cannot, then, while the other is still far away, they send a delegation and ask for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you is able to become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33 (NRSV, alt.)

(In the beginning was the Word. / And the Word was with God.)

Church, will you pray with me?

God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, keep us along the journey to Jerusalem, to the tomb, and into the Resurrection life. Amen.

The Luke passage assigned for today is arguably even more divisive than the one Henry preached on a few weeks ago -- today Jesus says, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate parent, spouse, children, siblings, yes, and even life itself, is not able to be my disciple. [...] therefore, none of you is able to become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

I think we often get stuck on the "give up all your possessions" bit -- Matthew and Mark each have a whole story about a law-abiding rich young ruler who goes away from Jesus sad because "sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor" is too big of an ask for someone who has managed to obey all the Commandments. But this whole "hate your entire family and even your very life" is pretty intense.

Now, I don't think that Jesus wants us to literally hate our family members -- earlier in Luke, Jesus proclaimed:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. [...] If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:27-28 & 32, NRSV)
And Jesus certainly doesn’t want us to hate our own life -- I think Jesus weeps at suicidality, just as Jesus weeps at anything that makes people believe they would be better off dead.

On the passage that Henry preached on ("Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"), black gay Episcopalian Broderick Greer Tweeted, "When good news is being announced and enacted at the margins, it often sounds bad news to the powers that be."

I think the message in this morning’s gospel passage is similar. Various commentators1 have noted that in context, the Hebrew word translated “hate” means more like detachment, a choosing of one over the other -- like when Jesus later says that you cannot serve two masters, for surely you will love one and hate the other (Luke 16:13). Here, Jesus is saying, “This is a big deal. I am bringing about radical transformation of everything, and you have to be more committed to the transformed life than you are to any of even your closest interpersonal relationships or the life you currently have -- otherwise this literally just won’t work. You cannot learn to swim if you never let go of the shore.”

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day -- though many of us are used to celebrating it with barbecues and department store sales, rather than reflecting on the history of labor in the US.

According to a Jacobin article last year, “Although previous Septembers had seen small workers celebrations in many states observing the end of summer, the first federally protected Labor Day was marked in 1894 with an AFL [American Federation of Labor]-supported parade.”

So that sounds really good, right? Over a century ago, President Grover Cleveland declared a federal holiday recognizing the labor movement. Except that earlier that same year, Cleveland had brought in the US Army to suppress the Pullman Strike, and he made Labor Day a federal holiday to curry favor from workers who were understandably pissed about that.

I wonder if this is the kind of trying to have it both ways that Jesus rejects.

At the same time as President Cleveland was making Labor Day a federal holiday, many groups had been pushing for May 1st -- May Day -- to be an International Workers' Day, commemorating Chicago's 1886 Haymarket affair.

In May of 1886, folks were rallying in Haymarket Square in Chicago to support workers striking for an eight-hour work day and to protest the recent killings of workers by police. Sounds similar to contemporary #FightFor15 and #BlackLivesMatter protests. The police ordered folks to disperse and someone threw a homemade bomb in front of the police as they advanced on the protestors. Many were killed and wounded in the ensuing violence and, shockingly, accounts vary about whether protestors fired first, about whether police fired on folks who were fleeing, etc.

There was a harsh anti-union (and anti-immigrant) backlash after this incident (and a huge outpouring of support, including financial support, for the police). Lots of people only peripherally involved in the rally were arrested. Media stoked public opinion against anarchists for their violent tactics. This all may also sound familiar.

This is the kind of history we could recall on Labor Day. A reminder that we’re not in control of what will happen after -- whether someone will throw a pipe bomb in front of us, whether the police will shoot at us, whether our homes will be raided or public opinion will turn against us -- but we can control how we react, what choices we make.

And those choices are not always easy.

Would you have marched in Grover Cleveland’s Labor Day parade in 1894? Would you have refused, still bitter from his response to the Pullman strike earlier in the year? Would you have waited until an eight-hour workday was the norm, something that still hadn’t happened 8 years after the Haymarket protests?

I’m not here to tell you how a hypothetical you should have behaved over a century ago, but the various texts assigned for this Sunday all converge around this theme of the choices we make.

In the reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God talks about being like a potter, and while that’s lovely and all, Jeremiah speaks of a vision of God-the-potter with a clay vessel that was spoiled, and which God reworks into an entirely new vessel. God literally says (paraphrased), “house of Israel, you are like this clay in the potter’s hand, I can break down and destroy kingdoms, and I can plant and build up kingdoms” (Jeremiah 18:5-9). This is not a comfort but a threat -- “you think we have this special relationship, but I could destroy you and make a new Chosen People.”

The Republican nominee for President this year has been using the phrase "Make America Great Again," and the Democratic nominee has countered with "America Is Already Great" -- which, while politically understandable, is a response I'm uncomfortable with on account of how it elides the MANY MANY ways in which America is deeply flawed. Now, I don’t think God is about to smush us into a ball of clay and build up a new nation on this land -- but I also don’t think it’s the worst thing God could do, especially since we white folk already played God on this land, nearly destroying the nations who were already here (the Wampanoag locally, and I’m not even going to attempt to list the currently 566 federally recognized Indian Nations in what is now the US).

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a biracial man, recently got blasted by certain parts of White America for not standing during the national anthem before a football game.

In an interview with NFL Media, he said: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus opens public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the jubilee year” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2) and declaring “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” -- and then the hometown crowd tries to throw Jesus off a cliff. Now, one can certainly read the story as the people reacting to Jesus saying, “This thing that God promised to do? You have seen that promise fulfilled here and now in me” -- reacting to the equation of this peasant kid with God -- and certainly between the Scripture reading and the attempted murder, Jesus gives a little “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” speech which seems aimed at pissing off the crowd. But I wonder if part of it was that they didn’t actually want that Scripture fulfilled -- because to do so would involve a radical re-ordering of the structure of their lives, their communities, their institutions, and they were not interested in that.

What if when Jesus said, “I have come to proclaim release to the captives,” Jesus meant, “That’s cool and all that you’ve started the slow process of shutting down the 13 federal private prisons, and you’ve declared that poor folks can’t be held in jail just because they can’t afford bail, but I am coming to abolish this whole system. I’m here to abolish Immigrant Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Homeland Security, and the whole prison industrial complex.”

I can imagine many people hearing a call to dismantle our toxic policing system as an assertion that, “If you do not hate your parent, spouse, children, or siblings who are police officers, then you are not able to be my disciple.”

Later in Luke, Jesus will say, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). Those who tie their identity to the structures of a fallen world will not be able to enter into the new life that is growing up all around us, but those who are able to empty their hands of all the preconceived notions we carry with us about how the world works will be able to receive new and unexpected gifts. You cannot learn to swim if you never let go of the shore.

In the text for today, Jesus uses the analogy of preparing for going to war -- cautioning that you not set yourself up for failure and embarrassment by getting into a war you can’t win. I don’t think Jesus supported war in the traditional military sense, but many in Jesus’ community expected the Messiah to be a Davidic king who would overthrow the occupying government. And I wonder if Jesus is saying in part, “You think we’re going to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?3 Do you think you really have what it takes to defeat the Powers that are oppressing us, or are you going to find yourself outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned?”4

The Roman Empire was a powerful oppressor -- a military power that would literally leave people nailed up on crosses along the roadside dying slowly and painfully as a warning to anyone else who might try to oppose them. The Empire not only had vast amounts of military resources, but it also knew how to play games of intimidation and appeasement -- because the most effective way to police people is to get them to police themselves.

Jesus’ counter-intuitive way to win against the Powers is to not play their game. Jesus says, “If you do not give up all your possessions, you will not be able to become my disciple.” Your comfortable suburban home where all your neighbors look and vote like you. Your assurance that if you call the police, they will not shoot you or someone you love. Your comfort giving money to yet another film that casts a cisgender man as a transgender woman. Your insistence that people in pain from yet another microaggression be calm and gracious unpaid educators.

There are so many, many ways we shield ourselves from really entering into the pain experienced by marginalized people at the hands of the death-dealing Powers.

Theologian Laurel Schneider talks about “promiscuous incarnation,” asserting that “the narratives of Jesus of Nazareth suggest that the divinity which his flesh reveals is radically open to consorting with anyone. It follows no rules of respectability or governing morality in its pursuit of connection with others, many others, serially and synchronically, passionately and openly.”5

Earlier I used the analogy of needing to let go of the shore in order to be able to swim.

Letting go of the shore enables you to go on adventures, enables you to go deep. You can’t explore all the riches of the water from the shoreline. There is a whole world that is literally unavailable to you, that you literally cannot enter into.

In the reading for today from Deuteronomy, God says, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity." (30:15) God says (paraphrased), “Love me, stay close to me, obey my commandments, that you and your descendants may have life.” God wants so much for each and every one of us to be able to enjoy the fullest possible life. And that just isn’t possible while we’re cutting ourselves off from each other, shielding ourselves from necessary discomfort, continuing to be complicit in systemic oppression. It’s not that God wants us to be miserable, it’s that God knows transformation is hard.

Theologian Kathy Rudy asserts that in our culture’s emphasis on monogamy, “We are told that on the deepest level our allegiance and commitment belong not to our larger community but to our partner or nuclear family.”6

Is this perhaps what Jesus meant by saying we must hate our family to become Christ’s disciples?

We are called to open ourselves up to broader and deeper ways of being in relationship -- community conflict resolution that doesn’t call on the police or the carceral system, stories for our children about their futures that don’t presume their gender or sexuality, facing our history honestly and building new futures.

We do this by being vulnerable with each other and taking seriously people’s accounts of their lived experiences -- seeking out the words of autistic people, people with disabilities, people living with mental illness, currently and formerly incarcerated folks, indigenous folks and people of color... And I do mean people’s own lived experiences -- not people who have studied or worked with these populations; not tourists who tried out the experience of wearing hijab in public, asking for spare change on street corners, being a woman on the Internet, or whatever -- actual people’s own lived experiences in the world inhabiting their own identities.

This kind of relationship-building, this work of stretching our comfort and expanding our knowledge, doesn’t require waiting for a leader, it’s work we can do now, and must always keep doing as we continue growing into the Kindom.

Amen.

References (besides the ones already hyperlinked in the text)

1. On "hate" in this text:

2. In addition to the Jacobin article cited, I also skimmed the Wikiedia articles on Labor Day, May Day, the Haymarket affair, and the eight-hour workday; as well as an IWW piece on the origins of May Day, a Slate article on Labor Day, and a CNN opinion piece on Labor Day.

3. Shout out to Audre Lorde.

4. I said I wasn't going to reference Hamilton ... and then it happened anyway.

5. Schneider, Laurel C. "Promiscuous Incarnation." Chapter 14 in The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity (Margaret D. Kamitsuka, ed.), 2010. Page 244.

6. Rudy, Kathy. "'Where Two or More Are Gathered': Using Gay Communities as a Model for Christian Sexual Ethics." Chapter 15 in Our Families, Our Values: Snapshots of Queer Kinship (Robert E. Goss & Amy Adams Squire Strongheart, eds.), 1997. Page 201.